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Why Functional Training is the BEST Strength Training

Cory Cripe, DVRT Master (Don’t Miss Cory Teaching Our DVRT Level 1 & 2 Programs in Chicago & Boston HERE)

functional training

I am a very fortunate person, my wife can tell you that!  There are so many thing that I am so grateful for such as owning my gym, Fitness Lying Down. One of the big reasons why is that it allows me to be a part of and impact the community that I have called home for many years. In fact, it is just down the road from the same place I earned my degree in Exercise & Sport Science: the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse!

I am extremely proud to call myself an alumnus and a UW-L Eagle! Spending my college career at this university really helped establish a more in-depth and foundational education about fitness – way more than all the Ironman and Muscle & Fitness magazines I soaked up during high school. Remember there was no social media way back then (can you imagine a time without social media)!

Remember THESE funny things? Heck, how do you even scroll on them?!

Over the years it has been very important to me to serve as a resource for new coaches coming from the UW-L programs, after all, I was lucky enough to intern with strength coach legend Al Vermeil (renown coach with the Chicago Bulls, San Francisco 49ners and MORE!). Having that experience shaped me in so many ways, I think it is only RIGHT if I try to pay it forward to do my best for other young coaches. This is a privilege and great responsibility for me to give these students a taste of what it is we do at FLD – especially how we are a 100% DVRT gym. What amazed me with this recent group of 20+ ESS students I was with over the weekend – only 3 are planning to become fitness professionals!!! The rest are working their way to become physical and occupational therapists, athletic trainers, and even one physician assistant (it reminded me of how tough of a business fitness can really be!).

sandbag training

It will probably come as no surprise to you how even a broken ankle couldn’t contain my enthusiasm for this day and how excited I was to instruct these students about how amazing DVRT is and the applicability it has whether you are a fitness professional, athletic trainer, therapist, or a PA! What DVRT has taught me about movement and how the body functions is where I derive my passion for sharing with others. Especially those that are our future in this industry. It is ONLY throw our evolving understanding of how our body performs in life that we can create better solutions for those that come to us for our help!

sandbag training

However, after the inservice I had one guy hang back and ask some amazing, well thought out questions. And, of course, a question I hear a lot from the men especially is, ‘Why are there no barbells?’ at my gym. Do you know what that is code for…can I get strong using DVRT and these “functional” tools? And I don’t blame them because I used to think the only way to get strong is training with barbells. It seems pretty obvious, right? How in the world could our industry overall get it wrong? After all, no other  fitness tool can be loaded as heavy as a 7’ long barbell. And if you want to get strong – you have to actually lift weight. Yes or yes?

Since some of his previous questions were around owning a fitness business, I approached it first as a business decision. Barbells are expensive (don’t think of just the barbell, you need plates, collars, etc.), they take up a lot of space (something EVERY gym battles with and can’t replace), they require something to be racked upon (another costly expense). Trust me, after graduating from UW-L in 2001 I wanted to open up my own gym and it would have been laid out with nothing but barbells. Thank the heavens that my beautiful wife wouldn’t allow me to start my own fitness business back then! However, let’s take away the business argument for a moment, let us ONLY focus upon the training aspect. After all, if something allows us to do our job the best, we should find a place for it no matter cost or space.

I couldn’t argue with this guy about how barbells will make you stronger – it was pretty apparent that he could lift some serious weight with the barbell and this was before I found out he was president of the UW-L Barbell Club (a powerlifting organization). But when I asked him what is exactly real-life, functional strength he stumbled. Then he came back and asked how I define functional training. Well, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out one of my favorite Gary Gray quotes, “functional training is the ability to navigate gravity.” What in the world does THAT mean and what muscle does that even work?!

Unfortunately, many do not know how experts and “fathers” of functional training like Gary Gray have actually defined functional training. It looks and means something VERY different than you hear on many mainstream outlets or even fitness blogs!

At first he confessed how he really didn’t think functional training had a place in strength training. I couldn’t blame him when he was citing various exercises he’s seen in the name of “functional training.” People standing on unstable surfaces, using itty bitty weights, and other circus style fitness acts. But when I told him what separates what we do at FLD with DVRT versus other functional modalities is that we focus on the science of actually how we as humans create movement. We don’t think of the muscle or exercise first, we think of a movement pattern and what we are trying to teach as renown spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill has said so well!

shoulder exercises

Sadly, most people never get to really understand or appreciate what functional training means or is actually trying to achieve. When you do, it is impossible to deny the importance of it in our strength training. 

One of the best ways to illustrate the importance of making these connections is through the use of the planes of motion we use every day in life and sport. There are three planes that we use in pretty much every real world motion, and this young man even agreed that life outside the gym is an environment that demands all three planes of motion. Whether you’re a competitive athlete, a 9 to 5 office worker, or someone missing a step while avoiding a cat (not sure if that cat and I will ever be good friends again!), life doesn’t occur just up and down or back and forth. In fact, doing so actually limits our bodies “movement vocabulary”, basically only allowing us to know how to move and perform in a very limited number of ways. After some our discussion, I think the young man was seeing the light as what we do in the gym in the name of “strength” generally becomes only sagittally plane based because of the tool and the mindset we tend to use (that means mostly we are moving almost exclusively up and down like most of your familiar gym exercises).

I was quick to respond that if he is competing and/or training competitive powerlifters then he best be getting under barbells. But what if you could actually become better, stronger, and more resilient in powerlifting if you increased strength in other planes of motion? Even being strong in the sagittal plane requires proficiency in the frontal and transverse plane as well. As Dr. McGill describes, there are often “energy leaks” when we only focus on the sagittal plane. Meaning, our body learns to be efficient by compensating because it doesn’t have the strength in these other planes of motion that we require. Therefore, we try to find other means to developing force where we start to see the aches and pains we typically think about in “getting strong” (which doesn’t have to happen!). During or teaching session we had already spent time covering the importance of training the anatomical slings and doing a few of my favorite DVRT magic tricks – so this did make sense to him. These ideas are pretty new to a lot of people, but they are important in understanding how our body actually functions.

You can listen and scroll through so that you can see the impact that making connections on the chains of the body have on our strength, stability, and resilience. However, most don’t even know how our bodies are designed to move and just follow exercises that have much more limited application than most realize. 

And it may not have been the best example given my injured state (never try to walk down dark stairs at your Mom’s house while stepping over the cat on the step!), but I told him being a male over 40 years of age how I feel not only stronger, but better than I have ever before and it’s all thanks to DVRT. Not only me, but the many who come through our doors and experience this practical way to train because let’s face it – people are refocusing their fitness goals. 

What I am able to do now at 40 are activities that I could NEVER do when I was 20. In fact, looking back, I was so much more fragile in my 20’s even though I was “training heavy” than I am now with all this functional training;) This may look like madness to some, but it is how we have progressed from foundational to more complex strength training and challenging what we think of when we say “getting stronger”. 

People are seeking fitness as a way to be better; they’re using fitness to improve their shoulder, knee, and back pain. When people say they want to be “more fit”, sure they want to look better and be leaner, but they also want to play with their kids without getting so tired, they want to be able to do basic life activities without the fear of throwing our their back or tearing their rotator cuff, they want to live better too! They don’t want, or deserve, more exercises for the sake of novelty or to avoid boredom.  What we do that is so different is we look at movements that create better solutions. They need a system that can meet them where they are at and allow for growth and success when training for strength. And after being in this industry for over 20 years the only system I’ve found to offer these solutions to make people better is DVRT. You might THINK this sounds like an infomercial, but it is how I have been able to have that positive impact upon my community that I have always wanted to achieve. It is why we have grown SO much in the last 4 years in a community that isn’t New York or Los Angeles. It is why I have been able to see the smiles and empowerment that thoughtful exercise can have on those that want to make a big change in the quality of their lives.

Seeing REAL people do awesome things in their training is what keeps me so passionate as a coach like these 3 awesome ladies! Strength and pretty functional training.

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